A Conversation with John Judis

John Judis ["Al Gore and the Temple of Doom," TAP Vol. 11 Issue 11] is a senior correspondent at The American Prospect and a senior editor at The New Republic. He recently published a book titled The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust.

Q: Tell me a little about how the book was conceived.

A: There were three different themes that run throughout the book, but the title captures only one of them. The questions I had were first, what characterizes the 1990s politically, from when the Reagan Revolution ran out of gas to the present? Why and how does that time differ from periods of political and economic reform like the 1960s, the New Deal, or the Progressive Era? Why haven't we had those kinds of reforms at this time?

The second question was to revisit the 1960s and to look at the impact that era had, and still has, on our lives. It has almost had the same kind of impact the Civil War had on the 40 to 50 years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The third question is about what is properly called the paradox, which is this: I was raised in the 1960s to believe that one of the main problems with democracy was these elites, these upper-class characters, who were secretly dominating American government and economics, and that political movements should try to eliminate their role. It was a thesis introduced by C. Wright Mills and elaborated on by William Domhoff. But after I moved to Washington in the early 1980s, I became increasingly convinced that the problem wasn't so much the existence of elites but what the people who would have been members of this political elite were doing with their time and experience: They had become lobbyists on K Street and were not working on behalf of their own ideals but on behalf of the very narrow, short-term objective set by their employers.

Q: The conclusion many draw from C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite is that elites make a democracy somehow less democratic. But you argue the opposite and trace how elites such as the Founding Fathers themselves have been crucial to how democracy works. How is that?

A: If you look at American history, starting in the eighteenth century through the present, there's a very special idea of what an elite is and what the responsibilities of elites are. The [elite] consists of a group of people whose idea is to rise above class, to rise above narrow interests, and to be disinterested. That was an ideal that was very much part of the Founding Fathers' [vision]. It was to some extent set back in the Jacksonian era because it became so identified with antidemocratic oligarchy, but was revived in the late nineteenth century by Woodrow Wilson, the Adamses, Henry Cabot Lodge, Teddy Roosevelt, and others. It was revived as part of a movement to reform government and make it more responsive rather than less. So what you had beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the creation of elites who in many ways looked back to the Founding Fathers and who have this different view of themselves we would associate with the ruling class or upper class.

Q: You say in your book that, in recent times, the elite has abdicated its responsibility, how corporate and financial interests, short-term and personal goals, have crowded out the bigger mission of unifying business and labor for the common good. And when the public found out that private interests were the motivation, it undermined the credibility of all elites. You write that the change was "like a monarch debasing the coin of the realm by adding nickel to the silver. Once the public figured out that many of the silver coins contained nickel, all the coins became worthless." How did that come about?